Elliott: James Beriah Frazier: Lawyer, governor and senator

Elliott: James Beriah Frazier: Lawyer, governor and senator

May 19th, 2019 by Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns
James. B. Frazier

James. B. Frazier

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Currently, 57 men have served as governor of Tennessee. They range from the famous, such as John Sevier, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, to the controversial, such as William G. "Parson" Brownlow, to those involved in scandal, as was Ray Blanton. There was a true traitor, William Blount, who conspired with the British relative to Louisiana, and then there was Isham G. Harris, who was a traitor if one wore blue, and a patriot if one wore gray. Austin Peay gave his name to a university, Prentice Cooper to a state forest, and Henry Horton to a state park.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

But of these 57, Chattanooga can claim only one as a citizen, James Beriah Frazier. Frazier was actually born in Pikeville on Oct. 18, 1856, the son of Thomas Neil Frazier and Margaret Frazier. The elder Frazier became notable as the Nashville judge who granted a habeas corpus petition in 1866 to free two legislators who were absenting themselves to prevent the Reconstruction legislature from having a quorum to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment. Judge Frazier was later impeached and removed for his action, although when the Conservatives gained control of the state government in 1870, his impeachment was invalidated.

The younger Frazier, known to his friends as "Jim," started his education in the Nashville area, and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1878. After a brief stint as a teacher, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1880. Frazier came to Chattanooga and practiced law with three different firms. He also served as a special judge in the local courts and "often delivered opinions in important cases." He married Louise D. Keith in 1883, and the marriage produced four children.

Frazier's political career began in 1900, as the state Democrats selected him the presidential elector at large, whose job it was to make speeches across the state to support the party's candidates. Frazier became known as one of the state's great orators. His presence on the campaign trail was such that in 1902, the Democrats nominated him by acclamation as their candidate for governor. Elected by a large majority, Frazier's administration was notable for its business-like approach to the affairs of the state. The state debt was reduced by almost $2.5 million, and by holding the line on new employment and strict scrutiny of spending, was able to increase funding to public schools. He was also a strong "law and order" governor. He was re-elected for a second term in 1904, but soon afterward a new opportunity arose.

In March 1905, Sen. William B. Bate died, and the legislature elected Frazier in his place. The Tennessee Democrat gained the friendship of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt when he supported Roosevelt's dismissal of 167 members of the all-black 25th Regiment, based on a false claim made by citizens of Brownsville, Texas, that the soldiers were guilty of race-related violence. Their personally good relationship, however, did not translate into many situations where their parties differed on policy issues.

In those days senators were not elected by the public at large, but by the legislature. When his term was up in 1911, he was in a tight race for re-election, but eventually lost to young Luke Lea, then a 32-year old Nashville newspaper publisher. Frazier returned to Chattanooga and resumed his law practice with his son, James B. Frazier Jr.

Frazier lived another quarter-century, and was a respected Democratic elder statesman. During Franklin Roosevelt's two elections in 1932 and 1936, Frazier came from "virtual retirement to loose a burst of oratory in behalf of the chief executive, for whom he had a deep admiration." He helped Cordell Hull begin his political career by appointing him to a judgeship while governor. Hull returned the favor after Roosevelt's election in 1932. Hull purportedly told FDR he would not accept a nomination as secretary of state unless Frazier's son was appointed the local United States attorney. The younger Frazier later served this area as a congressman.

Frazier unexpectedly died of a heart attack on March 28, 1937, just a few months after his 80th birthday. At the time of his death, he had been a licensed attorney longer than any other member of the Chattanooga Bar. According to local historian John Wilson, "Jim" Frazier was a cousin of Dr. Beriah Frazier, Chattanooga's second mayor. Frazier Avenue is named for another cousin, S.J.A. Frazier.

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney and historian. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org

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